This ain't Persona – deal with it!
Let me premise this review by saying I'm reviewing it as a classic game, not necessarily a modern 3DS release. Why? Well, this is kind of a love letter to fans from Atlus. The game originally released, as most of you probably already know, on the Sega Saturn and then was ported to PS1. Neither release was localized for the western world. Now, SMT fans get a chance to make their ends meet for the series, and considering the cost to find a hardcopy of one of the original versions, not even in English, this is a great opportunity for many of us.
Soul Hackers, with its cyberpunk setting, is surprisingly hip today, though the story and dialogue were written almost 15 years ago. Heck, this game was really ahead of its time in that regard. The presentation isn't going to bowl anyone over, but the voice work goes a long way to helping the transition to a modern handheld.
You probably know the premise by now. If you don't, go look it up – I won't waste time with that here. Suffice it to say, however, it's an engrossing story, one that dives deep into the metaphysical and emotional.
For the uninitiated, Soul Hackers' gameplay consists of first-person dungeon crawling with random encounters. Today's standard is probably the Etrian Odyssey series, and anyone who is familiar with those games can immediately visualize what you'll get here. However, Soul Hackers offers a more focused adventure, with interesting twists and turns.
Additionally, as is the norm for pretty much all SMT games, demon recruitment is a big part of the experience. SMT is basically Pokemon with an M-rating in that respect. That being said, demons don't level up in Soul Hackers, and you'll need to routinely recruit and fuse new demons in order to keep your edge. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game. It's old-school, sure, but it still works great today. It actually offers more incentive to collect and create new demons.
Demons are more than merely a gameplay device, though. The dialogue and interactions with them add a ton of personality to the adventure. Unfortunately, they don't animate all that much visually, and if you've been playing this series for a while, you've likely seen most of these demon sprites many times before.
The music, on the other hand, is fresh and varied. Some new tunes were added, along with a complete OST if you ordered a physical copy, and the sound effects hold up quite well. Wasn't terribly impressed with the character Nemissa's voice actress, but the rest of the cast were pretty great. You'll recognize a lot of the actors if you've been playing RPGs for a while. It's a fun crew for sure.
My only real gripes with the game – and let's face, they're really minor – are the things that weren't updated that probably should have been, as well as things that were updated that are kind of useless. The menu system feels clunky at times, and the touch-screen usage is absolutely lame. Rather than afford you the option to sift through the menu on the touch screen, its functionality has one use: to open the hack menu.
Speaking of hacks, they're basically cheats to make the game easier. There is an option to actually make gameplay more difficult, but I would have rather seen separate difficulty settings for each playthrough, something to work toward unlocking perhaps. Instead, Atlus went the Bioware route, giving you the option of changing the difficulty on the fly. I personally haven't touched a single hack, but I still don't like having the options there. It's a temptation I don't really care to have in my games. This ain't Animal Crossing after all.
In spite of these quibbles, we still get a wonderfully spruced up port of a classic SMT game most of us outside of Japan never a got a chance to experience. And it's a damn fine experience at that. Not everything is going to please everyone, yet there's still something here for almost everyone to enjoy. The grind isn't too heavy on the normal settings, and the dungeon designs, though visually unexciting, are interesting in terms of the goals set in front of you. There are light puzzle elements, but the story and demon interactions definitely take center stage in Soul Hackers. I recommend anyone interested in the game go ahead and nab a physical copy, since you'll likely get more value out of it with the included OST and extra box. Persona 3 & 4 fans may wanna watch some video before buying, as this might not be your thing, but SMT fans should swoop it up without worry. If you dig Etrian Odyssey gameplay but long for more substance story-wise, this will almost be a dream come true for you.